Silence—a Hostile Work Environment?

I find it nearly impossible to write in total silence.

I was still in high school when I discovered I was most productive in environments that weren’t absolutely quiet. Back then, I would take a portable typewriter to the university snack bar to pound out prose. Years later, when I was writing my master’s thesis, I would park in a booth at Taco Bell with my laptop. A friend of mine was the manager there, so I’d buy a drink and he’d bring me free food.

For a while I thought I was just quirky—or even defective. Then I read David Mamet’s book, Writing in Restaurants, in which the award-winning playwright and screenwriter equates public writing with performance art. A writer in a restaurant is, in many ways, similar to the sidewalk chalk artist who draws both pictures and crowds. The act of public writing includes an unspoken obligation to your “audience.” I know from my own experience that the pressure to “perform” helps keep me on task … even if the pressure is all in my head.

When writing in public, Mamet says, “Joy and sorrow can be displayed and observed ‘unwittingly,’ the writer scowling naively and the diners wondering, What the hell is he doing? Then, again, the writer may be truly unobserved, which affects not a jot the scourge of popular opinion on his overactive mind.”

I wrote most of my first NaNoWriMo novel at a McDonalds in Draper, Utah, where the dining room technically closed at midnight but the staff didn’t mind if I hung around longer. For 99¢ (plus tax) I got unlimited Diet Coke, free WiFi and just enough background noise to get my creative juices flowing. I also got words of encouragement from the cashiers who rooted for me from behind the counter. When I hit 50,000 words and “won” at about 11:45 p.m. on November 30, the restaurant’s employees joined me in my victory dance. It felt like a standing ovation.

Recently, I came across an article that refined my thinking somewhat. The Harvard Business Review piece, “Why You Can Focus in a Coffee Shop but Not in Your Open Office,” reviewed new research on “open office” environments, where office walls doors and even cubicle partitions are dumped with the intent of creating a more collaborative, collegial atmosphere. Anyone who’s ever worked in an open office knows that the model tends to stifle productivity rather than fostering it. The key question is why.

One of the studies mentioned in the article, this one conducted at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, found that “the right level of background noise—not too loud and not total silence—may actually boost one’s creative thinking ability.” Obviously, the “right level” for one person might not be right for the next. But there is some pretty good research to give us general numbers. According to an article in the Journal of Consumer Research, “… [A] moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks…. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity.”

A separate study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology suggested it’s the lack of privacy as much as noise levels that can torpedo productivity in an open office setting.

Which makes perfect sense. While a moderately busy restaurant or coffee shop provides plenty of background chatter to drown out the silence, it also provides a level of relative anonymity you don’t get around your co-workers. Unless you live in a very small town, most people you encounter in public are strangers. When you write in a restaurant, you’re alone in a crowd.

Or as Mamet puts it, “In a restaurant one is both observed and unobserved.”

Obviously, sitting in a restaurant or coffee shop puts you in the crosshairs of the Chatty Cathys of the world. This can pose a real threat to productivity. “What are you writing?” “A novel! What’s it about?” “I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Let me spend the next 40 minutes telling you about it….” This happened to me a number of times until I learned the number one rule of writing in restaurants: don’t make eye contact.

This finding is borne out by a paper presented at the annual conference of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which found “that face-to-face interaction, [and] conversation … may disrupt the the creative process.” Interestingly, the creativity factors these authors tested for include “originality, elaboration, flexibility and fluency”—exactly what you want when you sit down to a writing session. You just have to find a way to keep the kibitzers at bay.

All of this goes to say that where you work—and especially where you write—may have a profound impact on how much and how well you produce. I get it; there are people who require complete silence to get their creative juices flowing. Others need music. The key, of course, is experimenting with different environments to find out what works best for you. If you’re having trouble getting your creative on at home, try trading the silence for some anonymous chatter.

Incidentally, if you find that you’re one of those people who thrives on background chatter, but you can’t always head to the nearest Starbucks to write, there’s a solution for that. Download the Coffitivity app (available for Android and Apple devices) and take your coffee-shop noise with you wherever you go.

You’ll just have to provide your own caffeine.

Silence - a hostile work environment

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Tunes for Distraction Free Writing

When I’m writing, I go through phases. Sometimes I need complete silence—every little sound bothers me, and I won’t be able to think. Other times, I need to get out of the house and work where there’s some kind of constant, ambient background noise, like at a café or coffee shop. Often, I’ll end up writing Panera, simply because they don’t play their music very loudly (if at all) and they don’t get annoyed at me for taking up a table for an extra hour after I’ve finished eating.

But sometimes in order to get the words flowing, I need to put myself in another state of mind—that kind of meditative state that only music can achieve. It opens my mind up to new imagery and sensations, and makes it easier to translate certain feelings and emotions onto the page.

Slow, electronic ambiance for mysterious or introspective scenes, frenetic cacophonous music for fight scenes, epic symphonic scores for sweeping adventure or take-charge scenes . . . I pick my background music carefully depending on what I’m trying to accomplish in my story that day. But every song I choose has one thing in common: there can’t be any lyrics. Or if there are, they can’t be in English or it will mess with my ability to string words together and have those words make any sense.

Soundtracks are great for this, though if they’re too iconic (Harry Potter, anyone?) I might find myself reminiscing about scenes from the movie they belong to rather than focusing on the scenes I’m supposed to be writing. So again, I’m picky when it comes to choosing soundtracks. The Jason Bourne movie scores work well for me. Also Tron Legacy, and some (but not all) of the songs from the Pirates of the Caribbean films. But lately I’ve been seeking other sources of lyric-less music as well, and I thought I’d share with you the ones I like best. Most of the following are Spotify links, but if you don’t have an account, you can easily find them on iTunes, Xbox Music, and Amazon.

Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV – Shout out to Sunil Patel (@ghostwritingcow on Twitter – go say “hi”) for recommending this one to me. I had no idea NIN had an instrumental album and wow, oh wow it is the best. Some piano, some electronic, some slow, some fast and edgy. All with dark undertones. Great for fading into the background while still keeping your mind primed for whatever mood you need to impart in your scene.

Beats Antique – This group does what I guess you would call modern fusion belly dancing music? It’s hard to describe, you just need to listen to it and you’ll see what I mean. I love it, love it, love it. It makes me think of steampunk, and chase scenes through bizarres, and smexy tension. Definitely check this group out.

H.U.V.A. Network – This group’s music makes me feel a sort of crackling background energy like something big and exciting and important is gearing up to happen, but it isn’t happening quite yet. It’s also electronic, but of the calmer, more ambient variety—similar to the Nine Inch Nails album listed above, but not so dark.

The Piano Guys and 2Cellos – I’m listing these two groups together because they have a similar sound. They both take popular hits and put their own acoustic twist on them—most of the time without vocals, though there are a few where they’ve collaborated with a singer. You’ll find covers of songs by U2, Metallica, Adele, Muse, and more—but without their normally awesome, but distracting-while-writing lyrics. The Piano Guys also do some movie score covers.

 Sometimes I don’t want music though. Sometimes I just want ambiance. Sometimes, I just want to write to the sound of a rainstorm. RainyMood.com is the place to go for that. Just click on the website, turn on your speakers, and you have a constant loop of downpour with an occasional distant roll of thunder. It makes me want to curl up in a cozy corner with a quilt and a mug of hot coffee, and write, write, write.

And sometimes I don’t want music, but need something more than rain. Sometimes I want to be on location. Sometimes I want to be at a train station, or on the beach, or drinking mugs of frothy ale in a medieval inn. Sometimes I want to be on the deck of a spaceship, or walking down a city street, or hiking through frozen tundra. Sometimes that’s the only way I can really get the wheels turning in my head to get the right details into a scene. I recently discovered this really cool website that was actually created for tabletop gamers, but is also perfect for stirring up a writer’s creative juices. It’s called TabletopAudio.com, and it has a ton of different auditory landscapes to choose from. There’s something there for practically every genre, and I highly recommend you check it out.

And there you have it, a basic starting list of distraction-free writing backgrounds. Is there anything you would like add to the list? Please share them in the comments. I’d love to check them out! ______________________________________________

When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.